Personnages et Animaux
by Jenny Zimmer
May 1998 - Australian Galleries, Melbourne - Catalogue
At night looking up at the stars, sprinkles of light here and there, I remember my country dog, running fast, jet black. The great adventures through the bush, discovering echidnas, ants, rabbits and Birds. Lizards under a log. Angry magpies swooping country kids, maybe a peck on the head. Fat dog wanting to chase a ball. Cockatoos screeching in the cage owned by the lady with many Birds. Crazes came and went, yo'yos in the school-yard, up and down. For many it was sunburn at the pool, swimming and diving, trying to touch the bottom. A few noses shaped by sport, and wrinkles made from laughing. Even way back then, I remember, covered in freckles, thinking about all the characters. Red hair, curly, odd-shaped teeth, the lucky ones and others not so lucky. Pets near by. Faces shaped, telling stories about the sort of person anyone might be. Dean Bowen, Personnages et animaux, 1996
In memories such as these lie the origins of the images that constitute Personnages et animaux (1996), a set of twenty-four tiny colour etchings whose original verve and spirit are, in this exhibition, expanded into a multitude of new forms and ideas. They are memories shared by many who enjoyed childhood in rural Australia, and easily understood by others who did not. Memories are registered as glimpses of the past, recollective flashes, often drawn out longingly in conscious reverie. Writers find abstract words to describe them, musicians capture their essences in tone and rhythm and artists, like Dean Bowen, shape their images by drawing on the imagination and manipulating the materiality of paint, or ink, or found objects. All Bowen's images are based on memory and imagination.
Formal analysis and intellectual interpretation are seldom helpful in assimilating or describing the impact of recollections. Memories are 'hit or miss' events, reliant on the artist's ability to touch on experiences likely to have been noted in the collective consciousness of others. Who, among those whose childhood included visits to the zoo, would not respond to the rounded form and beady eyes of Baby hippo or the imaginative visual witticism of Octopotamus - an equally bulbous being with eight legs and similarly furtive glance? One's immediate amusement over these prints is accompanied by the slightly threatening recollection of some animal that has once, in a dim unidentifiable past, cunningly 'eyed' one off.
Equally, whose early childhood has not included a close examination of die topography of someone's head? My grandfadier's cranium was high, bald and shiny. As a tiny child, I liked its smoothness compared with the wrinkles round his ears and the whiskers of his moustache. The look and feel of these are retained as indelible memories recalled in the presence of prints like Man with small ears. This richly coloured print provides a geography of sensation. It first requires a rapid reconnaissance of its richly textured terrain, then an inquisitive ramble over its special features. The far parameters of the giant head, a generous oval extending to the outer boundaries of the space, are marked by those ridiculously small ears. Big heads should have big ears; by inverting the viewer's expectations, the ears become funny and more significant than they would normally be. Between them lies the face, mapped out with mouth, eyes and nose whose particular configurations give it a singular expression - distinctly wry.
Mr Marvellous, Business man, Office boy, Mr Dandy - different textures and facial configurations identify the many 'personnages' siphoned from the artist's stock of memories. Their apparent biological connection - being of a spiky-haired type that Bowen favours and which has something of the 'auto-portrait' about it - is intensified by frequent reworkings of the copper plates from which the prints are made. For instance, Man with small ears retains, within the broad oval of his face, the 'ghost marks' of an earlier print. Girf waving's rich textures and dramatic effects were originally achieved by boiling tusche on the copper plate to create deep craters and then applying bold aquatints with coarse sprinklings of resin. Man with small ears emerged after she was scraped away, and a new mouth, nose and eyes added. Deep burnishing into the heavy black aquatint created his short spiky hair where hers had been.
And so, in Bowen's catalogue of memories, the ghosts of earlier prints are transported into subsequent 'personnages', linking and identifying them as members of a 'family' born of his imagination. Similarly, The offering, a portrait of an anthropomorphic Birdman offering green leaves to surrounding Birds, was made from the plates used to create the earlier Man of Birds, thus continuing the bloodline of this Papagena-like figure. Its final version is a complex print with eight colour applications and added drypoint details. Ghost-marks linger on the scraped and burnished surface. Bowen likens the birth of new images from old to a hand-to-hand battle with the metal plate. The character of each face records this struggle.
Each new face adds to the growing repertoire of related physiognomies. Many share the spiky hair identified with the artist himself. He says, 'Echidna on my head (produced as both print and small bronze) is a joke about my hair. For all my life it has grown straight out of my head, wire-like, vertically towards the sky. It has created many laughs over the years. "Spiky", "Prickles" and "Wire-brush" were the names I so often heard in my youth. Echidna on my head, with hands thrown up in a gesture of acceptance, still makes me laugh.' In stark contrast, but distinctly related, is Mr Dandy with his dark stubble and perfectly parted hair glossed down with brilliantine. Bowen's physiognomic categories are determined by the shape, size and position of eyes, mouth, nose and ears; by type of hair and whiskers and differentiated skin textures and forehead wrinkles. Further differences are provided by clothing details such as buttons and textile patterns.
Bowen's animals form a similar typology, sharing some basic references with their human counterparts. The Birds are fat and round and prosperous. The hippos have bulbous bodies and small eyes and the echidna - which for this show has been redeveloped into a striking painting and a print - emphasises, as it re-echoes, the recurring theme of spiky hair. If that wonderfully animated painting, Wild dog, reiterates the toothy jaws of Bowen's motor-cars - otherwise known as 'shark-mobiles' and strongly represented in the urban and suburban themes in his 1995 show at Australian Galleries - the broad, gently humorous faces of the recently painted Cat portraits are reminiscent of human 'personnages' portrayed in large prints like Bird boy or Envy and innocence.
In the selection for this exhibition it is noticeable how ideas bom as highly technical etchings have evolved into monoprints and bronzes which depend, for their vitality, on direct manipulation of the medium. This 'hands-on' methodology also dominates the assemblages made of found materials and the painted memory images of houses, horses and portraits. These are the most recent works. Bowen finds that fluidity and interactivity between different media and techniques assists the creative process and provides an inexhaustible multiplicity of avenues for expression. In fact, much of his studio activity could be compared with that of Jean Dubuffet (1901-85) whose memorial Foundation at Perigny-sur-Yerres he visited while in France, in 1996. The experience of entering Dubuffet's innermost study, le Cabinet Logologique, at Perigny has been compared to the sensation of being 'inside' the artist's brain. The link between Dubuffet's Phenomenes (Phenomena Prints, 1958-59) and his own method of reusing printing plates to access their vast repertoire of interesting textures and effects was to Bowen, 'like a handshake across time, techniques and continents'.
If I may observe both artists in the present tense, Dubuffet and Bowen share much more than their separate huge and systematically kept inventories of 'personnages', assemblages, textures and memory images. They each, in their own way, question art-world values and exhibit a degree of scepticism about the privileged status of 'art-work' vis a vis the creations of 'others' such as children or cultural 'outsiders'. However, while Bowen's prints may appear 'childlike' they are, as Sasha Grishin commented in a recent review, 'stunningly complex and sophisticated. In them he [Bowen] exploits the full repertoire of intaglio techniques'. Neither artist is naive. Both value immediacy of effect, and treat as almost obligatory, forms of experimentation that incorporate chance effects. From the duality of what may seem a contradictory position - as it certainly was for Dubuffet - Bowen has developed, alongside his spontaneous and chance effects, a meticulous system for monitoring and recording the production of his prints. With the use and reuse of so many plates, the application of many 'veils' of colour and added aquatint and drypoint effects - not to mention the polishing and burnishing - his prints are complicated to proof and time-consuming to edition. Accurate records are as essential for Bowen as Dubuffet regarded them for himself.
Nowhere do their working methods collide with such affinity than in the assemblages using found materials. However, if Dubuffet thought of images made of twigs and leaves as radically 'anti-cultural', Bowen's stance is gentler and more humorous. It is more difficult to shock today's audiences, but artists like Bowen maintain a wonderful ability to surprise. The evocative Russian lady, for instance, is made from a rectangular slab of pineboard, her hat the head of an old hair-broom with seed pods used for eyes and mouth. Da-da head, made from a dried palm frond, has spectacles and the familiar spiky hair, while Are you a man or a mouse? sports a provocative little curl of telephone cord as its tell-tale tail. Breadboard man, his face scored by ten thousand knife-cuts, remains a favourite of the artist.
Many of the materials used in these assemblages have memories of their own, mostly extracted during the part demolition of Bowen's house while expanding his printmaking studio areas. He says, 'It produces an amazing feeling of liberation to smash away with a sledge-hammer in one's own home. I ripped out the plaster, then layers of small boards hidden underneath, old carpets, blinds, skirting boards, everything went. It was a short but disgusting job'. Bits of the former construction are still appearing in the assemblages - for instance the timber used to make Boy on a skate board and Cat was retrieved from an old shed at the back. Bowen's captivating sense of humour is given free rein in these imaginatively collaged witticisms whose modes of construction are every bit as unconventional as the printed images are, by contrast, technically perfected.
Returning to the prints, it is instructive to observe the ways in which Bowen uses the face as a theatrical space for the presentation of ideas. It becomes an arena for action, for reinvention, for exploration of the absurd and chance effects. Each face is both an end-point and a new beginning. Of the heads and faces he says, 'I started by creating bold faces that expressed curiosity, marvel, or perplexity ... The making and proofing of the plates was both exciting and funny. Different characters looked back at me from the copper. Did they mirror aspects of myself sometimes? I think of Mr Marvellous, The curious one, Big red, Multiplicity and Psychoplicity as tributes to creative schizophrenics like the French artist Chaissac - or to Dubuffet who, to the displeasure of some, in 1947 exhibited a series effaces of leading French intellectuals which made much of their wrinkles, deformations and grimacing expressions. My appreciation of Dubuffet, Art Brut and my experience working in several French print studios has made me something of a Francophile!'
However, Bowen's faces are not portraits; they generalise. His highly developed technical expertise and keen sense of humour assist the processes of adjustment that can transform a facial landscape from one of pride to one of envy, from one of mystery to one of surprise, from one of generosity to one of suspicion - and so on and so on. The different gestures and expressions are sequentially layered in the working of the plate and to uncover them would be an exercise similar to an archaeological dig. Oft-used plates, with favourite textured background effects, also provide perfect bases for the monoprints which he paints directly onto the plates, sometimes using the fingers and palm of his hand rather than a paintbrush. Many of the outback landscapes, of which some are intended as tributes to the late Rover Thomas, are created in this way.
He says, 'The birth of a print can occur in a multitude of ways and I have discovered a very personal language in printmaking. I regard it as crucial that this language remains flexible and adaptable to imaginative change and discovery. The insatiable inquiry of children and creative people can lead to a fascination, or obsession, with technique. We must constantly remind ourselves that art always lies beyond technique, and any merely pleasant arrangement of shapes and colours is insufficient to qualify'. The complex question of what Dean Bowen's prints, sculptures and paintings do to qualify as art has been partly addressed in this brief introduction to the current work. The quest to produce art can be daunting, even frightening, when the unending possibilities provided by memories, ideas, chance happenings and events, materials and techniques are all taken into account - particularly as all these factors are subject to the vagaries of the creative imagination.
Bowen's decades of practice as a studio printmaker guarantee that it is unnecessary to look for technical imperfections in whatever works he makes. Look instead for the infectious play of his imagination, the poignancy of his images and the irony and gentle humour of his visual statements. See how he grasps chance objects and events and transforms them into works of art that at first startle, then invoke memories, and then - on further reflection - remind us of our humanity. Such is art.
© Jenny Zimmer, May 1998